Fashion Revolution Week | Q&A

Karen Lukacs: The Textile Rescuer

April 24, 2017

Each year, Urbanite Runway participates in Fashion Revolution Week, a global movement to raise awareness in the fashion industry about sustainability. The movement was spurred from the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which killed over 1,000 people, many of them factory workers, in Bangladesh.

This year, Urbanite Runway decided to interview local Arizonans with a variety of fashion backgrounds in a series of Q & A’s, to give the Arizona community a broader look at who in their home state is helping to make the fashion industry a more sustainable place.

In honor of Fashion Revolution Week 2017, we present to you, our first interviewee of the week, Karen Lukacs, the Designer and Owner of Karen Lukacs Textiles, who rescues garments and textiles to bring love and life back into what was once worn by another.

UR: Tell our readers about your business and what you do.

KL: My tagline is officially, ‘Transforming reclaimed textiles into limited edition collections of sustainable eco fashion. One at a time. One of a kind.’ Really, I see myself as someone who rescues garments and textiles that people have for whatever reason, discarded. They’ve just fallen out of love with them, they don’t work anymore, or perhaps they’re a little dirty or torn. I see myself as a rescuer of quality textiles and I’m trying to save them from going into a landfill. Whether it’s a landfill here or a landfill across the ocean, I think they still have some more life left in them. So my personal mission is to rescue them and transform them into something that’s functional and classic and timeless to wear.

UR: Consumers may go to a vintage or thrift shop and purchase a garment, but not many will find ways to bring it to life in a new way. How did this design decision process come about when you were first starting your business?

KL: I’ve sewn all my life, so I’ve lived in areas where resources were slim to none, and thrift stores are discarded materials and I came to find ways to use them. In looking and going to thrift stores and vintage stores, primarily I’m looking at the fabric, because that is the beginning of the sustainability and the longevity of the garment. What I do here in Tucson, is that I actually offer classes where I show people how to alter garments and how I go about putting different fabrics together. I think it’s more of an intuitive process in working with the textiles. It’s what looks good, what feels good. If a sleeve is beyond repair, I take it off and use it as a pattern with another fabric and cut another sleeve and put it on. If there’s a big old hole in the back of the jacket, I look for a fabric or perhaps I have a t-shirt; one of my denim jackets has a t-shirt that has a nice elephant on the back of it. I take that icon off the t-shirt and find a way to fuse it onto the garment, which will hide the mars and the scars.

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UR: How did your interest in eco and sustainable fashion start?

KL: I would say it’s in my DNA. I grew up in a familial culture of make do and mend. I never saw it as a position of being impoverished, I saw it as creative and actually, as a position of empowerment. If I couldn’t have access to the resources that I wanted as far as fashion was concerned, I was able to reconstruct a bedspread or fabric or somebody else’s garment into my own. In high school, I was actually a part of a recycling group in Pennsylvania and I did it just as community service, but that left a tremendous impact upon me about the volume of material goods that people throw away that are still clearly distinguishable. So, that left a very big impression on me. It was always just in the back of my mind. And then in college, it kind of all merged together because I was able to use the handcraft skills that grew up with and I would embellish other people’s denim. I then realized that in this sea of denim blue jeans, people actually wanted some kind go personal identifier. So, I made money through college embellishing and hand embroidering people’s jeans and jean jackets. And so there I saw the business aspect and exchange of money to have a personalized statement on their garment. And they didn’t want a new garment, they loved their jeans, they had just broken them in and they fit and so embellishing them became like a small business for me. Then I realized that the skillset of these handicrafts that I had learned growing up had value to them and I didn’t want to lose them because I also recognized that not a lot of people had them. 

UR: In what ways have your clients expressed to you how your designs have influenced their personal style or perspective on sustainable fashion?

KL: I would say that that awareness came about when I was invited by the [Art] Institute to do a solo show in their art gallery. At that time, I was making bags and I was really involved in the process of taking these garments and textiles that I had picked up out of the thrift store or that people had given to me because they didn’t want to throw them away and starting to try and figure out a design application where we could upcycle these textiles. They didn’t necessarily have to be a reinvention of themselves, so the sweaters could become bags, they could become other objects, and functionality was key. So when the Art Institute asked me to do an art show, it gave me the perspective that these could actually be seen by the public as pieces of art, not just as another fashion product in the store. When I put the show together, when it first hung, and when I looked around the room it just looked like a retail store, there were garments hanging on the wall. So I went back through my files and on the descriptive plaques for each one, I added a photograph (where I was smart enough before constructing the garments) of the original resource garment. I hung them on a clothes line, took a photograph of them, and was able to put these on a plaquard next to the finished piece to show the before and after. So when people walked through the show, when they first walked in without knowing anything about me, they said, “Oh, look how cool this jacket is! Oh, isn’t this nice,” and then when they read the plaque and said, “Oh my gosh, this was a bathrobe and this was a pair of jeans, and this was a sweater!” I realized that that touched a cord with them, that all of a sudden, they had this experience of looking at things a little differently. When I had people come up to me and say, “Oh, I like this bag right here. I used to have a denim jacket like that in the 80’s.” I would laugh and say, “Well, if you gave it to the thrift store, it very well may be yours.” Then I had people from that show who said, “You know, Karen, I don’t think I’m going to be able to look at some of my older garments in the same way again.” In that experience, I had people come to me and say, “I like the way you look at these things, could you show me how to do this?”

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… When you’re teaching workshops, it’s just an experience to find out and work with the people in the room at the same time. I just wanted to share with them the tricks of the trade that I had figured out for myself. … And you don’t have to be a tailor and you don’t have to be a seamstress, but if you can hold a needle and thread or if you can sit in front of a sewing machine, I can show you how with the very simplest of tricks you can transform these garments into something that you’re going to want to wear, and more importantly, you’re going to want to keep. That feeds into the sustainability issue in that just because it has a tear in it, doesn’t mean you have to throw it away. That also doesn’t meant that you have to look like a patchwork quilt (not any denigration to patchwork quilts), but sometimes people have this skewed perspective that something patched or mended diminishes the value of it. My goal in teaching the workshops was to say, “Use these little glitches as opportunities to express yourself. We’ll make these mending experiences. It’ll be your artistic thumbprint on your garment. It’ll be yours. No one else will have one like this.”

UR: Why is it important for the fashion community to move toward a more sustainable effort?

KL: Oh my. I think the data is overwhelming. I think the data is simply overwhelming. I think the only other larger polluter is the oil industry. So the fashion industry is right up there with the big boys in the oil fields. I think the data itself, it’s just important to get that data out there in front of the consumer. When I do workshops and talks, I show people these pictures of mountains of discarded garments in third world countries, mountains of them that represent this excess of consumerism and this throw away culture that the industry business model of fashion really needs to stand next to that data and stand up and start doing the talk about what we’re going to do about it. … I think that the fashion industry, rather than just giving sweet talk or giving their scraps for someone else to play with, I think that the fashion industry itself has to start thinking from the design aspect. How are we going to design? … How about zero waste pattern making and design? So, from my perspective, I think that rather than segregating the people who are talking about eco fashion and sustainability in the purer sense of the word, I think that we need to be looking at how we can do that together. Unfortunately, it’s a big machine and that’s going to be difficult to change, so maybe the change comes from the growth and the movement of this grassroots culture that I’ve been talking about: the eco fashion, the sustainable grassroots culture. 

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

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